“We Keep Seeking”
January 8, 2023 - Cobleskill United Methodist Church, Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’
This past Friday was the day of Epiphany, a holiday that passes by rather unnoticed by most of the world. It always comes on the day after the 12th day of Christmas, always January 6th, and it traditionally marks the arrival of the Magi seeking baby Jesus after following the star on a long journey. And while much of the culture has already moved on from Christmas by this point, with the radio going back to its regular rotations, decorations taken up to the attic, and trees put out on the curb, Epiphany can be this welcomed reminder that the Christmas story doesn’t actually end on December 26th but lasts for 12 days and has its finally on Epiphany. In fact, if we ended on the 26th, we would only have part of the picture and half of the nativity. Any Downtown Abbey fans out there may remember this quipping line from Lady Mary when questioned about when to take the Christmas tree down: “The tree stays up until Epiphany. You’ll soon learn how things are done around here. Properly.”
It’s okay if you’ve never heard of Epiphany or if it sits on some dusty shelf in your memory, but let me tell you why it matters for us today. While the holiday of Epiphany may not be widely recognized in modern culture, the word epiphany itself is something most people have heard of. What does it mean to have an epiphany? It means having an “aha” moment! The sudden arrival of an idea. And there’s a connection between the word and the holiday. It goes back to the Greek origin of the word itself meaning “when something is revealed.” The holy day Epiphany is the day when Jesus’ wonder and glory was revealed to perfect strangers, foreigners, gentiles, these Magi who had traveled a great distance searching for a divine presence. In other words, this was an “aha” moment. The first Epiphany was a moment when everything made sense in a way that it hadn’t before.
In Celtic Christianity, Epiphany is thought of as a “thin place.” A place where God pulls back a curtain and gives us a glimpse of something glorious that had been hiding in plain sight. A place and a time where the boundary between normal, ordinary things and extraordinary, divine things, gets thinner and more permeable. God feels closer.
That’s certainly the way it played out for the Magi. They went looking for a king, but when the checked in the obvious places like a palace in the big city of Jerusalem, they only found Herod, who was indeed a king, but also a man corrupted by his own power. Clearly they needed keep seeking. It turns out the king they were actually looking for was hidden away in a small town like all the other small towns they had already passed on their journey. Their divine encounter was hiding in plain sight as a baby among peasants and barn animals.
I can imagine those Magi scratching their heads just a bit. The star had stopped over the stable, but could this be right? This seemed…. too…. ordinary. They probably looked at their gifts… Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh… and had brief, awkward, moment of feeling inappropriately fancy for the situation.
But I think that moment must have been fleeting because the star light that had guided them this far was too bright to be deniable. The scripture says they were overwhelmed with joy. God was revealing something in this stable that was too magnificent to second-guess. And for the Magi, there was nothing they could bring or do or be that wasn’t exactly appropriate for the moment. In other words, it didn’t matter who they were or where they had come from or what they had brought. This was a thin place. God pulled back the curtain and gave the Magi a glimpse of something glorious that had been hiding in plain sight and nothing else mattered.
There was another thin place this week but it wasn’t obvious at first. I found myself sitting in a room together with a whole bunch of other people who had perhaps been drawn there, like me, by a guiding light that seemed worth following. We had all come to sit and plead before the government in hopes that they might acknowledge a church’s right to serve the poor. This whole ordeal had me scratching my head. A church wanted to offer shelter to the homeless on cold nights and the government had stepped in said it wasn’t appropriate.
The Epiphany unraveled as the meeting progressed. One by one ordinary people stood up and spoke from their heart. Neighbors, friends, and strangers alike gave testimony to the way God shows up. They spoke about decency and compassion, suffering and heartbreak.
The Epiphany became real and apparent when the government had its “aha” moment. This was a town meeting in a village fire hall but somehow God pulled back the curtain and revealed what only God could reveal. God was present in our gathering right then and there. But not only that. God is present in each and every person experiencing homeless. God is present with each person on the worst day of their life. God is present with each person on the best day of their life. God is in a community that rallies behind the vulnerable. God is in a church building waiting with its doors wide open. God is in a group of elected officials who can change their minds.
When the final vote was taken and the government decided the warming station could reopen, the veil was lifted in that room. People wept. People clapped. People hugged. God pulled back the curtain to reveal that glory was hiding in plain sight, all we had to do was see it.
When we are looking for God, where do we look? How do we keep seeking?
Traditionally, the story we tell on Epiphany is the story of the Magi seeking God’s glory and finding it in a baby among peasants. But the story didn’t end there and today I choose to have the whole story of Epiphany read because I think it offers us an important clue about how we keep seeking today.
It’s a hard story to hear, though. The Magi’s visit to Herod made him begin seeking, too. But his seeking was driven by a lust for power. In stark contrast to the Magi’s desire to find Jesus so that they could glorify the divine presence, Herod wanted to find Jesus so that he could conquer the divine presence. He was a man blinded by his own power, willing to do anything and everything imaginable and unimaginable to stay in control.
But that’s not where the story ended either. In a series of two dreams, God nudged the Magi and the Holy Family to believe what they may have already suspected. The fragile revealing of God in a baby was under threat. For their part, the Magi risked their own lives by disobeying Herod and went home by another way to avoid giving the power-hungry ruler any clues about Jesus’ whereabouts. The Holy Family packed up their things in the night and fled from Bethlehem to Egypt, fearing for their own lives, seeking a refuge and a security their own homeland no longer offered.
If we believe that Epiphany is about revealing things or “bringing things to light” we cannot ignore what the Magi’s bravery, and Herod’s atrocities and the plight of the Holy Family tells us. Epiphany is not only about how we seek God in the hidden places, but about noticing who around us is also seeking. What is our role when we encounter people seeking power? Do we do the right thing, or do we turn our head and expect someone else to do the right thing? What is our role when we encounter people seeking refuge? Do we blame them for the situation they find themselves in? Or do we extend a hand?
And perhaps that’s where the message comes together today. Maybe we are being called, like the Magi, to keep seeking for the thin places… places where we can find God hiding in plain sight. But, also like the Magi, maybe our seeking is about something bigger. Maybe our search for God is actually a search for where there is the most vulnerability and injustice in our world. Maybe our guiding star is leading us to the people who most need refuge and security and it’s there that God is revealed.
We are, all of us on a journey. Our whole lives represent a journey. But what are we seeking? Power? Control? Are we looking for God only in the places we expect to find God? Or are we looking for the divine in unexpected places? Are we open to surprises and epiphanies that might change our life? This Epiphany, my prayer is that we all may start seeing God in places we never expected, even and especially in the people and places that are the most vulnerable.
Let us pray.
God of starlight,
every part of us is trying to seek you:
our bodies that carried us into this space,
our heads bowed in prayer,
our hearts that keep whispering, “There is more than just this.”
We are seeking you.
we are turning over every rock and leaf
looking for fingerprints that belong to you.
So meet us halfway.
Find us in the maze.
Quiet the rest of the world.
Open the door to us
with rich laughter and say,
“Come on in!”
We know you’re near,
that it’s you we seek.
And in our seeking, open our minds
To your incredible vision of wisdom, justice and peace for the world.
Grace and Peace,